Deep Pockets, Deep Cover: The UAE Is Paying Ex-CIA Officers to Build a Spy Empire in the Gulf
They hired Americans to professionalize their intelligence service. But how far can former U.S. spies go?
BY JENNA MCLAUGHLIN
Not far from the northeastern Zayed Port in Abu Dhabi, in a typical modern Gulf villa framed on one side by an elegant swimming pool, Westerners are teaching Emiratis the tools of modern spycraft.
The day starts with the basics: a 10 a.m. seminar on Sunday morning is titled “What is intelligence?” On Thursday, the recruits learn how to operate in four- to six-man surveillance teams. Over the course of the first week, they embark on scavenger hunts intended to hone their problem-solving skills. The following weeks get more advanced — students are schooled on creating cover identities to use when attending galas with diplomats, they are taught how to groom intelligence assets, and they watch skits about recruiting Libyan sources.
The Emirati recruits also train at another site about 30 minutes outside downtown Abu Dhabi called “The Academy” — complete with gun ranges, barracks, and driving courses — reminiscent of the CIA’s “Farm” at Camp Peary, a training facility located in southeastern Virginia.
The details of the training are contained in an official course schedule reviewed by Foreign Policy and were described by former U.S. intelligence officials who have been involved in the effort. The facilities and courses are part of the United Arab Emirates’ nascent efforts to create a professional intelligence cadre modeled after the West’s.
Former CIA and government officials were drawn to the Gulf nation by the promise of interesting work and, perhaps even more importantly, lucrative careers.
“The money was fantastic,” one former employee told FP. “It was $1,000 a day — you could live in a villa or in a five-star hotel in Abu Dhabi.”The key figure behind this growing intelligence training operation, according to multiple sources, is Larry Sanchez, a former intelligence officer who helped kickstart a controversial partnership between the CIA and the New York Police Department that tried to pre-empt the radicalization of potential terrorists by tracking people — many of them Muslims — in mosques, bookstores, and other places around New York. Sanchez, a veteran of the CIA clandestine services, has been working for the crown prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates for the past six years to build large pieces of its intelligence services from the ground up, six sources with knowledge of the matter tell FP.
But Sanchez is just one of many former Western security professionals who has made his way to the Gulf nation to provide security training. Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, famously moved to the UAE to create a battalion of foreign troops serving the crown prince, details of which were first revealed by the New York Times in 2011. And Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism czar, is also a longtime top advisor to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi as the CEO of Good Harbor Security Risk Management.
The UAE’s reliance on foreigners to build its security institutions is not new, but the Gulf state has usually tried to keep the details of that help out of public view, and when it comes to training its nascent intelligence operations, details have been kept particularly quiet. However, the use of former U.S. intelligence employees to build up foreign nations’ spying capabilities is still treading into new territory.
Sanchez’s role in providing a blueprint for the UAE’s intelligence operation, making it from whole cloth, shows just how far private contractors have gone in selling skills acquired from decades spent working for the U.S. military and intelligence community. That sort of work is also now raising legal questions as the U.S. government struggles to decide how laws govern highly trained intelligence officials hawking their skills abroad.
Sanchez declined to comment on an extensive list of questions sent to him by FP.
Six former intelligence officials and contractors described the training operation to FP, but they requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence operations, to shield friends and associates still working in the UAE, and to protect their future employability…
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